The classic Christmas song, “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” may be bring up sentimental images of Bing Crosby and falling snow, but for a foster child, the longing for “home” is very real. As foster parents, we often feel a lot of pressure to try to make the holidays as “normal” as possible for our families while also considering the needs of the traumatized child who is living with us. Here are a few practical ideas for foster families during the holidays:
- Prepare for activities- Holidays at your house may be “normal” to you but they are a mystery to the foster child in your care. Give as many details as possible about what will happen and make it visual so that there are as few surprises as possible. This includes helping kids know when they will have visits with their family. Think about things that might not go as planned and collaborate with your child on a back-up plan and an emotional outlet.
- Prepare for people- Foster children have reasons to mistrust adults. Letting them know who they will encounter, even showing them pictures, builds a sense of safety. If you will be with a difficult family member, it may be a chance to model boundaries, humor, forgiveness and even healthy conflict, but your main job to protect your foster child.
- Plan downtime and quiet spaces- Trauma and transition make us tired and reduce our ability to handle stimulating circumstances so make sure to provide times and places for downtime. You need this too as you juggle the dynamic of a new addition to your family. Make a realistic schedule and give your child permission to take space by going to a room by themselves, putting on headphones, or watching a movie. Ask your host to point out a place your child can go if they need to be alone. Consider age-appropriate activities that a child can do to calm down while still remaining in your sight. This could be coloring in a blanket fort nearby, or playing a video game while you sit in an adjacent room. The goal is to lessen the stimulation while still remaining as present as possible.
- Educate family and friends- Educate your family ahead of time and let them know not to ask invasive questions while telling them what they CAN say and do. Consider possible behaviors they might see from your foster child such as pouting, angry outbursts, withdrawal, hyperactivity, poor boundaries, overfamiliarity and lack of respect for adults. Inform them about the effects of trauma and let them know how they can best respond.
- Promote their voice, offer choice- Foster children are very powerless and often their negative behaviors are a need for some control. Whenever realistic, give foster kids a choice. Take the time to ask about traditions they have at their house and see how you can honor them in your home.
- Gifts- Foster children often have a strange relationship to gifts, a mixture of hurt and entitlement. If age appropriate, talk about the meaning of gifts ahead of time, set realistic expectations, help them give to others and consider giving your child a coupon for an activity or experience rather than stuff.
- Be realistic- Even with your best efforts, your foster child may have a difficult holiday season. Make peace with the fact that helping a struggling child is disruptive. When a child has had multiple attachments, it is not unusual for them to become rejecting of their primary caregiver, while becoming overly familiar and warm with others. You may experience this, or you may see your child cozy up to you and reject their biological parent. This is a prime opportunity for healing! Remain calm, consistent and loving, and do what you can to support biological parents with this as well. This will be VERY HARD work, but it will bring healing that lasts long after the last of the tinsel is cleaned up.
Through it all, remember, the holidays are just a season, but therapeutic parenting is a way of life—a gift that will be unwrapped throughout a lifetime.